The web of suspicion, stigma, bureaucratic regulations and punitive laws that “protects” minors today from unauthorized contacts with adults has become a form of age apartheid as ugly and in-yer-face as the razor-wire fences thrown up across Europe to keep out refugees – and many of us, including one recent commentator here, might feel this web is much more effective than the fences.

Thwarted in his attempts to be sociable, never mind sexual, across the age divide, Sapphocidaire is sceptical there are many youngsters who would welcome relationships with anyone more than a few years older. I had responded to a post by “A”, saying “… I gather a lot of underage gay boys are now using Grindr to meet men.” Not true, insisted Sapphocidaire, saying gay boys online are for the most part actively hostile to paedophiles. The GYC was better years ago, “which is why it was shut down and then reintroduced with age constrictions by relative groupings”.

Yes, times have changed quite drastically, even within a decade or so. But was I wrong about Grindr? My information comes from someone who knows what he is talking about. This is Darren, a mid-thirties guy who introduced himself on Sexnet last year as a former rent boy from the UK, sexually active from 11 and a prostitute by 14 in the 1990s. Also a cypherpunk with a science background, he has latterly been working on some projects relating to sexual offending and sex offender laws, and says he has been “alarmed at the increasing ways in which homosexual youth are being dragged before the courts both as victims and offenders in recent times in the west”.

“As gay sex went online, the boys followed,” he tells us, adding that in the late 1990s gay.com allowed 13-year-olds to register.

The gay scene argot for inter-generational sex is called Daddies and Sons, apparently, although I don’t think there is any rule that it actually has to be a family thing! Indeed, if the term were meant to be interpreted literally, it would need to be Daddies and Granddads, because the younger party is supposed to be legally of age and hence old enough to be a Dad himself. But Darren assures us that there are 15-year-olds on Grindr who are looking for “daddy”. “Grindr,” he says, “includes daddy as an option in what you are looking for.”

Can we put numbers on it? Darren has attempted to, using an indirect method rather than contacting any of these youngsters, which would have been legally fraught with peril. He came up with a substantial figure but on reflection I am not convinced. The numbers looked low in relation to  the huge area and population in question, and some of the “youths” may actually have been law enforcement agents.

For genuinely strong 21st century data (albeit pre-Grindr) on young gay boys willingly getting into relationships with gay men we need to go somewhat further afield, to North and South America, starting with Latin American communities, first in New York and then in Campinas, a city of over 1mn in south eastern Brazil. Common to both of these Latin studies is Alex Carballo-Dieguez, a professor of medical psychology at Columbia University and also a researcher into the prevention of HIV transmission. This research focus is highly significant. Funding institutions hate supporting any work that makes sex sound pleasant, especially where minors are concerned. An emphasis on disease and other dangers is much preferred.

The upside of this, however, is that when the main point of your research is HIV you are allowed to go where other researchers are forbidden, and to report facts honestly that would otherwise in effect be censored. This is because controlling and eradicating life-threatening sexually transmitted disease is a really serious business: even the influential moralisers who prefer to sweep the pleasant side of sex under the carpet know that fighting the spread of disease requires good data on people’s sexual motives and behaviour.

In 2002 Curtis Dolezal, with Alex Carballo-Dieguez as co-author, published a paper called “Childhood sexual experiences and the perception of abuse among Latino men who have sex with men”. The title is worth dwelling on. The first point is the reference to childhood sexual experiences, a term that does not predefine the contact as abuse. That is because the authors want to know about the feelings (or “perception”) of these guys themselves as they look back to their childhood: they get to say for themselves whether or not they think their early experience was abuse. Secondly, “men who have sex with men” are not necessarily gay, hence the precise but unwieldy term.

In this study of 307 Latino men in New York City,  recruited from bars, dance clubs, parades, AIDS service organizations, community centres, public parks, etc., 100 of them (predominately gay) were found to have had childhood sexual experiences with an older partner (CSEOP):

If any partner was 4 years older and had sexual contact with the participant prior to his 13th birthday, the participant met criteria [for CSEOP]. One hundred men met our criteria for CSEOP. The median age of the first such experience was 8.5 and the partner was, on average, 9 years older.

The authors conclude that since a third of the sample reported childhood sexual experiences with an older partner, “these experiences cannot be considered rare or isolated occurrences for this population”. Asked whether they considered their experiences sexual abuse, 59 of the men said yes but a substantial minority, 41 said no.

Dolezal and Carballo-Dieguez also say:

Each participant was asked why they did or did not consider the event(s) to be sexual abuse. For those who did consider it sexual abuse, over half of the men referred to their age (e.g., “I was a child,” “I was too young,” and “A child doesn’t know what he is doing”). The next most common response had to do with volition (e.g., “It was done without my consent,” “It was against my will,” and “I was forced to do things”). The men who did not consider the event to be abuse also frequently referred to their volition, with approximately two thirds stating that it was consensual and that they were not forced into the situation. Several felt that they had actually initiated the experience (e.g., “It was my initiative,” “I was the one who went out for it,” and “I exposed myself in front of him and provoked him.” More common responses simply stated that they agreed to the encounter(s) (e.g., “I agreed to everything,” “I was consenting,” and “I was curious, I wanted to do it”).

One participant was 10 when he had sexual contact on 20 occasions over 3 months with a 25-year-old male neighbour. The events involved mutual masturbation and oral sex. The participant did not feel coerced or hurt and did not feel it was sexual abuse “because I seduced the neighbour.”

Carballo-Dieguez, who incidentally has worked with the renowned Theo Sandfort, also undertook the research referred to above in Campinas, Brazil. Published in 2011, this study of 575 participants (85% men and 15% transgender), showed 32% reporting childhood sexual experiences with an older partner. Mean age at first experience was 9 years.

So the prevalence rate and age at first experience were both very similar to the New York-based study. But the men’s perceptions were strikingly different. Only 29% of the participants who had had such childhood sexual experiences considered it abuse; 57% reported liking, 29% being indifferent and only 14% not liking the sexual experience at the time it happened. Although both populations were of Latin Americans, it looks as though the New York ones had been influenced to a far greater extent than their Brazilian counterparts by sentiment against “child abuse”, which is perhaps at its strongest in the US, the UK and the wider anglosphere.

I started out by exploring whether gay boys in contemporary society, with implicit reference to the English-speaking countries, are seeking out gay men for sex online. Inevitably, with hard data difficult to come by, I’ve had to rely on studies that nearly answer the question but not quite: the Latin research tells us about boys’ early experiences but without telling us much as to whether they initially knew they wanted sex with men and deliberately went after it or whether – as we must suspect given the early average starting age – they typically had no such clear agenda, and were found by the older partner rather than them doing the finding. Maybe, like Darren, most of them would soon have come to realise they were gay in any case, and would have sought out the gay scene in their early teens.

What we have stumbled upon by focusing on studies of gay men, though, may be something even more important than the original question. The most significant thing of all is not how relationships get started but whether any value is put upon them; and, if not, whether it is only the pressure of cultural hostility that is causing a negative evaluation.

Jessica Stanley and her colleagues surveyed the “age-discrepant childhood sexual experiences” of 192 gay and bisexual men living in Vancouver, British Columbia, who were recruited from a randomly selected community sample. This research team also took an interest in the men’s own perceptions. From the data, published in 2004, Stanley et al. were able to conclude that  “Those who reported consensual sex with older partners described their experiences as neutral or positive, whereas those who were coerced had greater adjustment problems including difficulties with competitiveness, coldness, expressiveness, and general interpersonal problems.”

It’s what we would intuitively expect, isn’t it? But this sort of investigation is so rare it is worth trumpeting. I’ll conclude with another done in connection with AIDS prevention: Sonya Arreola et al., 2008.

This study examined differential effects of forced, consensual, and no childhood sexual experiences (CSE) on health outcomes among a sample of adult men who have sex with men in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York. 2881 telephone interviews were conducted. Unsurprisingly, the forced sex group had the highest levels of psychological distress, substance use, and HIV risk. The report says:

Interestingly, the forced sex group and the no sex group were statistically indistinguishable in their level of well-being, while the consensual sex group was significantly more likely to have a higher level of well-being than either of the other two groups. This suggests that consensual sex before 18 years of age may have a positive effect, perhaps as an adaptive milestone of adolescent sexual development.

Crucially, the study acknowledges that children and adolescents have voluntary sexual relationships with men, even finding that the voluntary variety (34%) were more than twice as common as forced ones (16%) among those surveyed. Amazingly, a public education guide based on these and related positive findings was government funded, via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Back to contemporary reality in the UK. According to Darren, “Grindr is a hideous app that has taken us right back to the days of cottaging”. He feels the present scene has not stopped adolescent initiation into the world of adult gay sex, but has constrained it to being a furtive, seedy, guilt-ridden business for both the younger and older party. Like “cottaging” in dingy public toilets, often the only way for gays to meet in the bad old days, it is a scenario for swift fuck-and-flee sessions filled with self-loathing and mutual contempt – no place for Kind people or the real boy love that a chico in Brazil might find.

Apps such as Grindr, and the more relationship-oriented Blendr, should enable people to come together across the age divide for friendship, relationships and love, as well as encounters of a casual but also respectful type. Alas, the countervailing pressure exerted by stigma and aggressive, hostile, policing mean that the good side – so strikingly shown to be a possibility in the research discussed above – is crushed out of existence and only the bad remains. Instead of Latin Lovers we have British Bum Bandits.